Allan Riverstone McCulloch (1885-1925) scientist. museum curator, illustrator, journalist, and so much more. McCulloch’s legacy has been largely unacknowledged, but he is the subject of a recent biography by Brendan Atkins. I absolutely loved the book, although it may not appeal to everyone.

McCulloch was born in Sydney’s Cabarita and began working at the Australian Museum as a cadet in 1898, when he was just 13. In 1906 his widowed mother Ella bought the historic home Firholme, (now Hambledon Cottage) on the old Macarthur estate at Parramatta.

Parramatta’s local paper congratulated Allan when he won an unusual competition that year.

(Cumberland Argus)
Prize winning painting by  Allan McCulloch.

Allan resided at Firholme until Ella’s death in 1917.

Allan McCulloch at Firholme 1918
ALLAN ON THE VERANDA AT FIRHOLME 1918 (City of Parramatta Research and Collections)

Delia Falconer, another writer I admire, said of Atkins’ book; ‘This fascinating story of a talented naturalist and his unravelling is also a portrait of the colonial madness of museums and collecting.

By ‘unravelling’, Falconer is referring to Allan McCulloch’s long battle with mental illness, which ended in tragedy. ‘Colonial madness’ acknowledges the unethical collecting of artifacts at the time. Atkins does not attempt to whitewash his subject’s part in what was really the theft of cultural treasures, particularly in Papua New Guinea.

My favorite passage in the book is not actually about McCulloch, but on museums generally (well OK, he may have been passing judgment on the recently revamped Australian Museum) ;

Old museums exude a gothic, steampunk aesthetic, now sadly vanishing under minimalistic design and digital screens. Wunderkammern filled with curiosities line ornate walls. Glass cases of diverse skeletons and shape-shifting frameworks of bones compete for attention with butterflies pinned in iridescent spirals. Displays of precious gems and dioramas of nesting seabirds in mid-squabble capture glimpses of Earth’s great diversity.

Behind the scenes of the Australian Museum, old specimens and redundant exhibition items find new life. Here, a large circular table that once served in the boardroom; over there, a pair of matching Victorian cedar book cases containing hardbound journals, gilt lettering on red and green Morocco spines. In Dickensian back offices, staff hunch over crowded desks crammed with card-index drawers and paper archives.

Atkins’ words resonated with me. The updated Museum has much better access and lots of digital wizardry. It is also far more engaging for children. However, what stopped me in my tracks when I visited was a glass case of diverse Victorian era objects. I was to discover that controversial curator Gerard Krefft was sitting in the armchair when he was forcibly removed from the Museum on the orders of the trustees in 1874. Atkins covers this story and I have written about it previously on this site.

Allan McCulloch too, had difficulties with the Museum’s trustees. In 1924 they refused his request to attend an important scientific conference in Honolulu. It was a huge blow to a man already struggling with depression.

He found solace over the years on his beloved Lord Howe Island, which he first visited in 1902. Here he would retreat when everything became too much to bear.

McCulloch took his own life in 1925. Fittingly, he is remembered on Lord Howe Island with an obelisk containing his ashes. It overlooks Coral Lagoon, where he had studied and collected marine life

Obelisk on Lord Howe Island in memory of Allan McCulloch.

McCulloch was a gifted artist, but you will not see any of his works on the walls of Australian galleries. Just one oil painting lies in an archival box at Sydney’s Mitchell Library. How fitting that it is titled Coral Lagoon. Atkins describes the impressionist painting in his book;

Vague, shadowy greens and browns suggest an underwater scene, or perhaps a sunrise or sunset. In the central foreground sit two structures, one flat-topped, the other craggy. At first glance they appear as rocks or coral, flanked by clumps of seaweed, but this is a McCulloch joke. As visitors to Lord Howe know, the island is dominated by two monoliths….the viewer look down on the island and its coral lagoon from a great distance in a surreal blending of perspective.

My apologies for this poor reproduction;

Oil painting of Coral Lagoon by Allan McCulloch

Thanks so much for bringing Allan McCulloch out of the shadows Brendan Atkins. Your book is so honest and so insightful, I cannot wait to view the archival material at the Mitchell.



  1. Always had an interest in him, through my connections in Riverstone NSW. McCulloch Street is named after his family.

    • Pauline

      Oh, that’s interesting Michelle. To my shame I had never heard of him.

  2. Always sad when someone takes their own life, but the cover picture of the book gave me the willies too with said gentleman standing on such a precarious edge, especially with heavy camera equipment

    • Pauline

      Yes, imagine how much more he could have achieved. Mind you, I think his expeditions to Papua New Guinea were even more scary.

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